Movie review: ‘Ready Player One’ offers imaginary world with nostalgic fun and real-world lessons

In the year 2045, life on Earth is rather bleak for many people. Living in rundown trailers stacked on top of each other and pressed too close together, people find their only escape is through the “OASIS,” a virtual reality world developed by tech visionary James Halliday. Inside the Oasis, you can be whoever — or whatever — you want to be. You can visit exotic places and buy possessions you’d never be able to afford in real life — all without leaving your room.

It’s the perfect escape for Wade Watts, a lonely teenager with a difficult home life who discovers excitement and adventure in the Oasis through his avatar, Parzival. That is, until suddenly the Oasis stops being an escape, and his problems in the virtual world start bleeding out into the real one.

It’s easy to see why Hollywood jumped at the chance to adapt the bestselling novel “Ready Player One” into a feature film. In addition to blending real world drama with a virtual reality adventure, the book is packed full of pop culture references. And they certainly picked the ideal director for this project — as soon as I finished the book, my first thought was, “I’m so glad they got Steven Spielberg to direct this, because he’s the perfect fit.” Especially since Spielberg’s work was almost certainly a major inspiration for Ernest Cline, the author of the original novel.

If you’re a fan of the novel, one of the first things you should know is that the film is actually quite different from the book. The basic plot points are the same: Wade is searching for an “Easter egg” left by Halliday inside the Oasis, which offers treasure beyond imagining as well as the key to controlling the Oasis itself, and a dubious organization known as IOI is trying to find this Easter egg first and is willing to commit acts of real world violence in order to seize it for themselves. However, the competitions/challenges Wade must compete in to earn the Easter egg are different, and some other events from the book are altered or left out altogether.

This actually didn’t end up bothering me too much, because I really enjoyed the movie. Still, it was a little surprising at first to see some MAJOR deviations from the book, and it’s good to know to expect that going in.

I was really curious to see this movie because while I liked the book and had fun reading it, I didn’t LOVE it, and to me the story seemed like it would work better as a movie. Although the book dragged in a few places, at least for me, the movie clips along at a steadier pace. The pop culture references feel more natural on screen than in print, too. And there are plenty of pop culture references: Batman, Star Trek, King Kong, Alien, Back to the Future, just to name a few. I mean, watching the Iron Giant fight Mecha-Godzilla on the big screen is enough to put a smile on anyone’s face, right? (And also, coincidentally, was better than any of the robot vs. monster fights in “Pacific Rim Uprising.”)

I enjoyed how the movie jumped back and forth between the real world and the virtual world of the Oasis, letting us see the contrast between the characters’ real lives and their pretend ones. While we don’t get to dig too deeply into a lot of the characters, Wade Watts is a good “every-man” sort of guide on our adventure. The movie also has a lot of Spielberg’s signature flourishes and themes: a sense of fun, adventure, wonder, and hope.

If I had to name some spots for improvement, it might have been nice to add a few more layers to the main villain, Nolan Sorrento, the CEO of IOI. Ben Mendelsohn is a great actor, and I think he could have made the role a little more nuanced, if given the chance. And the film also could have spent just a *tad* more time in the “real world,” showing how and why reality in 2045 has become so bleak.

One of the things I liked best about this story, though, is its sense of balance: while it celebrates nostalgia and references to geek culture, it also gently reminds us not to let those things take over our lives to the point where we shut ourselves off from reality. I love movies and pop culture (as anyone who knows me knows), and my favorite fandoms — like Star Wars and superhero movies — have helped me get through some rough times and opened the door for me to meet new people who also love these fandoms. Yet in “Ready Player One,” the Oasis often causes people to ignore important, real-world problems, and that’s the point where the fantasy world becomes toxic. There’s nothing wrong with watching movies, video gaming, and escaping into these fantasy worlds. But it’s also healthy to switch off the TV or the computer sometimes, and step outside and make real-world connections. The virtual world can’t hide the real-life issues forever.

If you’re a fan of Spielberg or are simply looking for an entertaining afternoon at the movies, “Ready Player One” is well worth a ticket. I definitely want to go back and see it again to catch all the pop culture references I may have missed the first time!

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